Faculty of Social and Human Sciences (UNL) Conference System, 1st Non-Monogamies and Contemporary Intimacies Conference

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Meaning and mononormativity: incoherence, flexibility and relationship ‘significance’
Jessica Joan Kean

##manager.scheduler.building##: B Tower
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Date: 2015-09-26 11:30 AM – 01:00 PM
Last modified: 2015-08-08


Questions of significance are raised when one asks oneself, or is asked by others, about the nature or quality of an intimate connection. Does it count as a relationship if we…? Is it cheating when I…? Does it matter that we no longer…? Questions like these seek to ascertain the extent to which a relationship is significant (valuable or important) by means of attributing significance (meaning or implication) to its characteristics. We might, for example, read significance in the regularity of dates, the longevity of affection, the ferocity of libido or the presence of fidelity. Feminism and queer theory throw these processes of signification into relief, refusing to take their logics for granted. While these established critical perspectives inform this paper’s discussion of meaning-making in relationships, I argue that critical insights can be gained through attention to idiosyncrasies as much as patterns. In that spirit I will use qualitative interview data to inform four case studies of non-monogamous individuals, taking those case studies seriously as a critical resource in their own right.

When the heteronormative and mononormative practices through which we typically understand the significance of our relationships aren’t present, those involved are often asked to explain, perhaps even justify, how and why their relationships count. Given monogamy’s central symbolic role as a measure of significance, it is perhaps unsurprising that non-monogamous relationships face particularly regular, and at times hostile, questioning. I argue that this extra scrutiny often prompts an explicit re-negotiation of the meaning and value of relationship characteristics that can otherwise pass as a package deal. Thus, while the four case studies must be understood as arising out of specific circumstances of heightened scrutiny, the questions they raise can be used to highlight the flexibility and occasional incoherence with which we all make sense of our relationships.

The case studies for this paper have been developed from qualitative data collected as part of a larger project. In 24 semi-structured interviews with people who have been in non-monogamous relationships, I explored how participants understood the practical, political and philosophical underpinnings of their relationships, past and present. The research design, methodology and analysis was informed by feminist cultural studies and queer theory.